Crete, Greece: Exploring the villages and mountains on Greece's largest island

Nobody says you have to do the obvious on a cruise holiday. As Azamara Pursuit sails into Chania in Crete the temptation might be to sign up for the excursion to Knossos and its famous Minoan palace ruins. Lots of passengers do. But I've been there before, and was underwhelmed. Knossos is hot and crowded. It takes an archaeologist's mind to get excited about crumbling foundations and ancient drainage pipes.

Today's Crete seems more attractive. Chania is a handsome town with plenty of history – its own Minoan remains and museum, Venetian dockyards, Ottoman baths and mosques – overlaid with a contemporary buzz. Its shopping streets are busy, its waterfront cafes loud with chatter. Fishermen mend nets. Old women prod tomatoes in the covered market.

We'll be in Chania all day, providing time for me both to explore the port town and take a shore excursion, too. Azamara cruises emphasise destination, so there's plenty of choice. Apart from the classic Knossos visit there are seven offerings, from a chef-led market visit to a look into the contemporary art scene. But Crete is renowned for its scenery and, behind Chania, rugged purple mountains beckon. The Villages of Crete excursion is the one for me.

Soon we're hauling into the hills with our local Azamara guide Irini. Our coach inches around hairpin bends among olive groves. The sea tilts below, shimmering like a silver mirror. First stop Aptera has landscapes as gorgeous as I'd imagined. The ancient Greek city's fortifications loop across herb-scented hillsides for four kilometres, enclosing the worn-down remains of temples, Roman houses and a newly excavated amphitheatre.

We're aren't here to poke among rubble but for the views over Souda Bay. You could admire this spot just for its physical beauty, but Irini has a more philosophical bent. Here is ruined Aptera, once one of Crete's most puissant city states, she observes. Here is the Ottoman fortress, seemingly eternal in its massive, intimidating solidity. And right over there, on the other side of Souda Bay, is a NATO naval base. Sleek grey American warships huddle against a brown hillside. To a Cretan, America must just seem the latest empire to note this island's strategic location and move in – at least for a while.

History is like waves on a beach, according to Irini. The White Mountains are what remain, dramatic in limestone off to our right, skirted in contoured olive trees and sprinkled with late-spring snow. The roadside is daubed with wildflowers. We stop in the village of Gavalohori, whose heritage houses seem to have sprouted from the stony landscape. No Knossos bull-leaping souvenirs here, just embroidery and delicate lace made by finger-busy village ladies sitting outside their houses. I sit beside them and slurp an ice-cream as they cackle.

Our coach winds down towards the Mediterranean through a farming landscape beaten by the hot late-morning sun. Goat bells tinkle through the olive trees. Our last stop is fishing village turned beach resort Gavalochori, which like most places in western Crete is rather low-key. Bunting is strung between church and houses in its main square, where local men drink coffee under straggling eucalyptus trees. Pink northern Europeans flop beneath striped parasols on the beach.

We sit in a tavern and snack on sfakianopita, a traditional Cretan pie made with cheese and honey. The pastry is crispy and still warm, the filling soft and sweet as love. Cats prowl under the verandah. Bougainvillea bright as lipstick slumps overhead. This is what I call a shore excursion. No heavy-hitting history for me today, no dutiful Knossos shuffling. Just beautiful Crete, some philosophising and a pie. Brilliant.

TRIP NOTES

Brian Johnston was a guest of Azamara.

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CRUISE

Azamara offers three Greece Intensive Voyage itineraries in 2020, sailing between Athens and Venice (or the reverse) and calling at Chania. A nine-night Greece Intensive Voyage departs on 23 April 2020 and also visits Mykonos, Patmos, Santorini, Zakynthos, Corfu and Kotor in Montenegro. From US$2667 a person twin share. The 4.5-hour Villages of Crete shore excursion costs $US99. See azamara.com

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